History of Galápagos

The geological, ecological and human histories of the Galapagos Islands are woven together in ways that have made the archipelago one of the most fascinating places on earth. Learn more about the Islands below.

Geologic History

Galapagos is located on the Nazca tectonic plate. This perpetually moving plate is heading eastward over the Galapagos hot spot and has formed the chain of islands. The islands were formed through the layering and lifting of repeated volcanic action. This geographic movement is correlated to the age of the islands, as the eastern islands (San Cristóbal and Española) are millions of years older than the western islands (Isabela and Fernandina). Most of the islands have a distinctive conical shape that is often associated with volcanic action. The mountainous islands have been formed through continuing eruption, building layer upon layer. Due to this volcanic formation, the islands are characterized by many steep slopes, with heights ranging from a few meters above sea level to more than 5000 feet above sea level. Each major island, with the exception of the largest island, Isabela, consists of a single large volcano. Isabela was formed when six volcanoes joined above sea level. Geologically, the Galapagos Islands are quite young, probably no more than five million years old. Some of the westernmost islands, which are the most volcanically active, may only be hundreds of thousands of years old and are still being formed today.

Species Arrival to Galápagos

Why the Galapagos Islands are Unique

Evolutionary Biologists are fascinated by island ecosystems and the clarity with which the species that inhabit them illustrate evolutionary processes. For this reason, as well as a world-changing historic visit from a man named Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands are quite arguably the most studied archipelago in the world.

The Galapagos Islands also have a unique set of environmental conditions that set them apart from all other island groups in the world. Their sunny equatorial position on the globe combined with their location amid the cool Humboldt and Cromwell ocean currents allows these special islands to display a strange mix of both tropical and temperate environments, which is reflected in the complex and unusual plants and animals that inhabit them.

Species Arrival

Five to ten million years ago, the tops of underwater Galapagos volcanoes appeared above water for the first time about 600 km from mainland Ecuador in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Those volcanic peaks were completely devoid of plant and animal life. All plants and animals that are now native to the islands must have arrived to the islands originally through some form of long-distance dispersal.

When considering the diversity of species that do inhabit the Galapagos Islands, it is important to note how “unbalanced,” in comparison to continental species diversity, the variety of Galapagos species are. For instance, there are many native reptile species, but no amphibians; there is an abundance of land and sea bird species, but very few mammals. When considering plants, those with large flowers and big seeds are absent while grasses and ferns abound.

There are two main ways for species to make their way to remote islands (aside from any methods involving humans). The first method is by air in the form of flying or being blown by wind, and the second method is by sea while swimming or floating, sometimes with the aid of rafts of tangled vegetation.

It is likely that the ancestors of present-day Galapagos animals that are good swimmers (sea lions, sea turtles, penguins) actually swam their way to the islands with the help of some swift ocean currents. On the other hand, it is believed that many of the reptiles and small mammals (rice rats) were carried to the islands from the South or Central American mainland on rafts of vegetation. The vast majority of such rafts would have sunk well before they ever reached Galapagos, but it would have only taken a handful of successful rafts to wash ashore to explain the present reptile diversity in Galapagos. This “raft” theory of arrival also explains why there are no native amphibians, few mammals, and many reptiles in the Galapagos Islands – reptiles are the best adapted to deal with the harsh salty and sunny conditions of weeks at sea.

Coastal plants, such as the mangroves and saltbushes of Galapagos, have seeds that are salt tolerant, and those seeds are, therefore, likely to have arrived by sea as well.

Wind is thought to have played a major role in transporting spores of the lower-form plants, such as ferns, mosses, and lichens, to the Galapagos Islands. Vascular plants with heavier seeds are quite scarce in Galapagos because those seeds would have had a more difficult time traveling by wind — with the exception of those plants with plumed seeds designed exactly for wind transport. This explains why members of the dandelion family (Compositae) are found throughout Galapagos.

Many small insects, and even tiny snails, could have easily been blown by the breeze. The weaker-flying land birds and bats (2 species) likely arrived with the help of the wind. However, land bird species in Galapagos represent only a tiny fraction of those living on the mainland, and this is because it would have been a very difficult journey for the few who did make it.

Sea birds, generally excellent fliers over long distances, simply flew their way to the islands. Birds likely brought with them hitch-hiking plant seeds or propagules that were attached to their feathers or feet, or even in their guts.

Making Roots

The mere arrival of an organism to the Galapagos Islands is just one piece of the early survival puzzle. Organisms also had to be able to establish themselves once there, and, most importantly, to go on to reproduce. Scientists can only guess that many plant seeds accidentally made their way to Galapagos, were deposited in an unfavorable area, and perished soon after arrival. Not surprisingly, those plant species that were most successful at colonizing the Galapagos Islands were those of the “weedy” variety with wide tolerances for varying environmental conditions.

One more problem facing new plant colonizers to the Galapagos Islands was pollination – many plants rely on insects or animals for pollination, and the chance of both a plant and its pollinator arriving to the islands together was unlikely. This can explain why there are so few showy flowering plants, which mostly require animal pollinators, but there are many wind-pollinated plants in the islands.

Quite simply, because animals are mobile, they have always had an advantage over plants in that they could move to more favorable areas on the islands, if such areas existed for them.

Arrival of Species to the Galapagos Islands TODAY

In the last few centuries, humans have taken the place of birds as the primary source of new introductions of plants and animals to the Galapagos Islands. Unfortunately, many of the human introductions have been detrimental to previously established native or endemic wildlife – for example, harmful species such as fire ants, goats, and blackberry have all caused great harm to one or more of Galapagos’ iconic long-established pioneering species.

(Note: Much of the information above was gathered from Galapagos: A Natural History by Michael H. Jackson.)

Human History and Discovery

The following texts are from Galapagos: Both Sides of the Coin, by Pete Oxford and Graham Watkins (2009). This book contains hundreds of magnificent photographs and an excellent overview of the archipelago’s unique biodiversity, its scientific significance, and the complex conservation challenges facing the islands.

The world first heard about Galapagos more than 470 years ago. The Dominican friar, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama, was the official discoverer, arriving on March 10, 1535. Currents inadvertently drove Fray Tomás towards Galapagos, after he had set out from Panama on his way to Peru. His account is the first written record of Galapagos and describes the giant tortoises and cacti, the inhospitable terrain, and the difficulty of finding water—characteristic features of the islands. Since his visit, the arrival of humans and the decisions they have made have wrought many changes in these extraordinary islands.

Over time, many different kinds of people have influenced Galapagos. The islands have attracted pirates, whalers, fur sealers, fishermen, scientists, colonists, and tourists—all with social and economic interests that have affected the flora and fauna of the islands. The resulting ecological changes include the decimation of populations of fur seals, giant tortoises, groupers, lobsters, sea cucumbers, and whales; the arrival of more than 1,400 new species of plants and animals; and large-scale changes to the near-shore marine and highland ecosystems. People have particularly modified the ecosystems on the colonized islands, including Floreana, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Baltra, and Isabela and on the more accessible islands such as Española, Santiago, Pinta, and Pinzόn. Since their discovery, our decisions about what to do with these islands have had huge consequences.

The understanding of the past is critical to understanding the Galapagos of today and to ensure better decision-making for the future. The following links provide information about how people have interacted with the islands and how those interactions have shaped the flora, fauna, and landscapes of the archipelago:

Fray Tomás de Berlanga

Fray Tomás de Berlanga brought the world’s attention to the Galapagos Islands. Some claim that Inca Tupac Yupanqui visited before Fray Tomás, though this assertion, based on accounts by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa in 1572, has lost favor since Thor Heyerdahl’s initial support. Because of Fray Tomás’ letters, early maps of the coast of South America began to include the Galapagos Islands. The islands appear on a vellum chart, undated, but thought to be from the 1530s, though it is likely that an artist added the islands after its original creation. The islands then appear in Gerard Mercator’s map of 1569, which included the Ysolas de los Galopegos. The third oldest existing map appears as the Ins. De los Galopegos in Thatrum Orbis Terrarum, first published in 1570. These maps and accounts were the beginning of a chain of communications, through which the islands became better and better known, culminating today with the Internet, where a Google search delivers over 22.2 million hits for “Galapagos.”

Fray Tomás’ experience in the islands was not a happy one. The inhospitality and lack of water that he noted is a recurring theme in the accounts of subsequent visitors to the islands. Other Spanish explorers visited, including perhaps Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, but most found the islands waterless, somewhat uninteresting, and very difficult to live in. They were seen as having little more to offer than giant tortoises as a food source. A second recurring theme is that the location and ecological context of the islands made them important as a haven for pirates, as a base for whalers, as a scientific curiosity, as a military base, and an eventual draw for tourists.

Pirates and Buccaneers

During the 17th century, pirates became commonplace along the Spanish trade routes near the Americas, looting Spanish convoys and towns on the west coast of South America. These pirates were the first people to “use” the Galapagos Islands. The coastal attacks began with Sir Francis Drake who traversed the Magellan Straits in 1578; Dutchman Jacob L’Hermite Clerk and Englishman Richard Hawkins soon followed him around the Cape Horn. Many of these pirates—also known as privateers or buccaneers—operated with the tacit support of their home countries, mainly France, Britain, and Holland, whose interest lay in draining the resources of the Spanish empire. The islands were strategically convenient for pirates, because they were sufficiently distant from the mainland to permit escape, yet close enough to the trade routes and coastal cities for raids. The islands were also useful as a source of food in the ever-abundant giant tortoises. Even though there was little fresh water, there was enough for the pirates and privateers to survive.

In the 1680s, the Englishmen William Dampier and William Ambrosia Crowley visited the islands. By 1678, Crowley’s initial chart of the archipelago appears, naming islands after English royalty and nobility. Dampier was one of the first of many writers to describe the Galapagos Islands from a naturalist’s perspective when he published A New Voyage Round the World in 1697—the first English language account of the islands. Dampier coined the word “sea lion” and added more than 1,000 other words to the English language; his account included the importance of the numerous land turtles and their oil, used instead of butter.

Dampier returned to the islands in 1709 on the Duke, under the command of Woodes Rogers, and on the Duchess. These two ships, before arriving in Galapagos, had found Alexander Selkirk marooned on the Juan Fernandez Islands; Selkirk provided the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. John Clipperton seems to have been one of the last pirates recorded as visiting the Galapagos, in 1720. This initial brush with humanity, from the 1620s to the 1720s, almost certainly left the islands with some of the first unwelcome, invasive species and began the decline of the giant tortoises, but otherwise, probably had little impact.

Whaling and Whalers

There is a hiatus in the history of Galapagos between the records of the last pirates in the islands and the arrival of whalers who moved into the South Pacific in the late 1700s. By the end of the 18th century, British and American whalers had so reduced Atlantic whale populations that they began to explore the Pacific. In 1788, the British whaling company, Samuel Enderby & Sons, sponsored Captain James Shields of the Emilia to undertake one of the first major Pacific whale hunts. Shields returned with 140 tons of whale oil and 888 seal skins and, by 1790, at least nine British whalers were working in the Pacific. Darwin reports hearing of a giant tortoise tattooed with the year 1786, suggesting that whalers before the Emilia arrived. By 1791, six Nantucket whalers also sailed for the Pacific. These early expeditions caused the British Admiralty, supported by Enderby & Sons, to send Captain James Colnett on the H.M.S. Rattler in 1793 to study the opportunities for whaling in the Pacific.

Colnett, who arrived in Galapagos in June 1793, prepared an updated chart of the islands, that was produced by Aaron Arrowsmith in 1798; he proceeded to rename the islands again. He also found an abundance of sperm whales and fur seals. Many credit Colnett with establishing the Post Office Box on Floreana (still an active tourist site today) as a means for ship-to-ship communications and for ships to leave mail to carry to England. However, by the time he arrived in Galapagos, British whalers had already been working the area for at least six years; besides which, Colnett apparently never visited the islands.

The Galapagos were a key whaling area because of the breeding grounds for sperm whales and the deep water feeding areas of the species to the west of the islands. Whalers called these areas the “Galapagos Grounds” and the “Off Shore Grounds.” The whales found along the coast of Peru in the upwelling waters of the Humboldt Current also move into the Galapagos waters, following the prevailing currents. The Galapagos Islands served as the main Pacific base for whalers until the discovery, in 1819, of the rich whaling grounds to the northwest of Japan.

In 1812, while the British were at war with Napoleon in Europe, the United States declared war on Britain, providing for interesting times among members of the Galapagos whaling community. British whaling vessels had, in the past, seconded as privateers during previous conflicts between the two countries and, as such, were fair game in time of war. The American frigate, Essex, under Captain Porter, visited the Galapagos in 1813. There, he built up his fleet by capturing British whalers and, in particular, by using information from the Post Office Box to determine the whereabouts of the British fleet.

Because of these actions, whaling shifted from a mainly British to a largely American operation. Porter was also one of the first people to introduce goats to Santiago Island. Other whalers may have deliberately established goats and pigs on Floreana around the same time in response to the giant tortoise declines on the islands. In addition, Captain Porter was one of the first people to describe the differences in the tortoise types from the different islands. Through his 1851 book, Moby Dick, Herman Melville made a second ship named Essex famous. In 1820, a sperm whale sank the Nantucket whaler, Essex, approximately 1,500 miles west of Galapagos. The first mate, Owen Chase, recorded the event and his account subsequently fell into the hands of Melville, who wove his narrative together with tales of albino sperm whales, drawing on his own experiences on the Acushnet, to create Moby Dick.

The ecological costs of whaling and fur sealing were considerable. Sperm whale, fur seal, and giant tortoise populations declined precipitously during the 19th century. By 1890, the Galapagos Fur Seal was considered commercially extinct and the yearlong 1905-06 California Academy of Science expedition found very few fur seals in the islands. Between 1784 and 1860, whalers took more than 100,000 tortoises from the islands. Whalers were also responsible for lighting brush fires during the very dry years. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book, In the Heart of the Sea, provides an account of a devastating fire on Floreana set by crew members of the Essex in 1820. By 1846, tortoise losses were so heavy on Floreana that they were thought to be extinct. The California Academy of Science 1905-06 expedition found that tortoises were very scarce on Española and Fernandina; by 1974, Pinta was added to the list of islands where tortoises could not be found. Given that the estimated total population of tortoises in 1974 was about 10,000, the earlier removal of at least 100,000 was obviously devastating.

Fortunately for Galapagos, in the late 1840s, a Canadian, Abraham Gesner, described a way to distill kerosene from petroleum, which reduced enormously the dependency on whale oil for lighting and triggered a rapid decline in the whaling industry. By the second half of the century, low whale densities, coupled with reduced demand, brought an end to Nantucket and British whaling. By then, however, the islands had already suffered irreparably.

Charles Darwin

Of all the scientists to visit the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin has had the single greatest influence. Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England. In 1831, having studied medicine at Edinburgh and having spent time studying for Holy Orders at Cambridge, with nudging from Professor Henslow, Darwin convinced Captain Robert FitzRoy to let him join him aboard the H. M. S. Beagle as the ship’s naturalist. FitzRoy was taking the Beagle on a charting voyage around South America. On September 15, 1835 on the return route across the Pacific, the Beagle arrived in the Galapagos Islands. Darwin disembarked on San Cristóbal (September 17-22), Floreana (September 24-27), Isabela (September 29-October 2) and Santiago (October 8-17). FitzRoy and his officers developed updated charts of the archipelago, while Darwin collected geological and biological specimens on the islands.

At the time of his visit, Darwin had not yet developed the ideas he presented later; it was only in retrospect that he realized the full significance of the differences among Galapagos species. Noteworthy about his visit were his observations of three different species of Galapagos mockingbirds on different islands and what the acting governor, Englishman Nicholas Lawson, told him about the differences among the giant tortoises from different islands. While in the archipelago, Darwin focused as much on geology as on biology, collecting many geological specimens. Later, when he grasped the significance of the differences among the mockingbirds and tortoises, he resorted to the collections of his crewmates to look for inter-island variations among birds, plants, and other species, having failed to label all the specimens in his own collections, by island.

On the Origin of Species (published in 1859) changed the way we look at and understand the world. The book focused on the transmutations of species and explained, in detail, the mechanism that underlies evolutionary change. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin countered the predominant view of the time by presenting observations on the high number of endemic species found in the islands, the close interrelatedness of these species, and the absence of some groups of species. All of these observations ran contrary to the reasoning behind “Special Creation,” then the dominant explanation of the distribution of species.

Critically, Darwin suggested a highly logical alternative mechanism to explain the distribution and types of species, which he termed “natural selection.” His argument was that if individuals vary with respect to a particular trait and if these variants have a different likelihood of surviving to the next generation, then, in the future, there will be more of those with the variant more likely to survive. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin offered a compelling answer to the outstanding question of biology, which was “how life on earth had evolved.” The book was, as Darwin commented, “one long argument” that stemmed from his five-week visit to the Galapagos Islands and attempted to include all life on earth. On the Origin of Species linked Darwin and Galapagos inextricably and changed the islands forever.

Galapagos Colonists

The first permanent residents in the Galapagos Islands settled on Floreana Island. Patrick Watkins, an Irishman, was probably the first settler in the islands. “Irish Pat” lived on Floreana, near Black Beach, where he grew vegetables that he bartered with whaling crews and where he, apparently, spent a good deal of time drinking rum. Watkins was marooned, or had requested to be left, on Floreana in 1805. He abruptly vacated Galapagos in 1809, leaving in his wake a flurry of stories about his voyage to the mainland aboard the Black Prince, as he left the islands accompanied, but arrived in Guayaquil alone. Several writers have reconstructed the legend of Irish Pat from verbal and written tales and “Pat’s Landing” was a feature on Floreana for whalers. Watkins was the inspiration for the chapter entitled “Hood’s Isle and the Hermit Oberlus” in Herman Melville’s novella, Las Encantadas.

General José María de Villamil Joly, of French-Spanish parentage and born in Louisiana when it belonged to Spain, was the first to push colonization of the Galapagos Islands. In 1831, Villamil commissioned a study of financial possibilities in the islands. The researchers suggested that the relatively common lichen orchil, or Dyers Moss, Rocella gracilis, which produces a mauve dye, had economic potential. Consequently, Villamil organized the Sociedad Colonizadora del Archipiélago de Galápagos, filed a claim on the land he required, and then worked on persuading the newly formed Ecuadorian government to annex the islands. General Juan José Flores, Ecuador’s first president, supported Villamil and, on February 12, 1832, Colonel Ignacio Hernandez annexed the archipelago as a territory of the Republic of Ecuador. Hernandez provided new names for two islands, including Floreana, named in honor of President Flores. Villamil remains a national hero as the first governor of Galapagos, as the father of the Ecuadorian navy and as a high-ranking minister in the Ecuadorian government.

The first colonists on Floreana were soldiers who had taken part in a failed coup attempt on the mainland. Eighty others joined them later in the year, with General Villamil. They brought with them donkeys, goats, pigs, and cattle, thus assuring the establishment of introduced animals on the islands. They also cut down highland forests on Floreana to create pastures and to plant crops, including citrus. The economic focus of these new settlers was orchil, live tortoises, and tortoise oil that they sold to visiting whalers and sent to the mainland. Villamil left for Floreana in 1837, and in the same year the remaining colonists revolted against the governor, Colonel Jose Williams. By 1852, the settlement had failed.

The next major colonization effort began in 1858 when Manuel J. Cobos, José Monroy, and José Valdizán formed the Orchillera Company. When this project failed, Cobos moved to El Progreso, a settlement on San Cristóbal, and focused his efforts on the production of sugar cane, coffee, and tortoise oil. From 1879, the “Cobos Empire” infamously used prisoners and indentured laborers, until his disgruntled “workers” assassinated him in 1904. From 1860, José Valdizán extracted orchil in Floreana and, in 1869, he won an exclusive 12-year contract from the government of Ecuador to extract orchil from Galapagos. Valdizán died during an uprising in 1878. The trade in orchil declined because of the discovery of large quantities of the lichen in Baja California and because of the development of synthetic dyes, beginning with mauveine developed in London in 1856.

In 1893, Antonio Gil made a third attempt to colonize Floreana, but abandoned his efforts and moved to Isabela, where he founded the settlements of Puerto Villamil and Santo Tomás. By 1905, there were 200 people living on Isabela, exporting sulfur and lime and using tortoises for meat and oil. Colonists also mined salt from James Bay on Santiago Island in 1886, from 1924 to 1930, and in the 1960s. They used the salt to cure fish and to fill the infrequent demand produced by heavy rains flooding the coastal Salinas saltpans on the mainland.

In 1925, Norwegians colonized Floreana and San Cristóbal. Initially those in Floreana planned to set up a whaling station, but that did not work out and they moved to Academy Bay in Santa Cruz. Other Norwegians had arrived on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal in 1926. On Santa Cruz they focused on fishing and canning turtles, lobster, and grouper, a venture that ended after the cannery boiler exploded in 1927. Norwegians living in Wreck Bay on San Cristóbal also moved to Santa Cruz in 1928.

In 1929, German colonists arrived in Floreana, leading to a wealth of stories about the eccentric Dr. Friedrich Ritter, Dore Strauch, Baroness Eloise Wagner de Bosquet, and the Wittmer family. The stories ended in tragedy in 1934, when the Baroness and one of her partners disappeared, Ritter died of food poisoning, and another inhabitant ended up mummified on Marchena Island. The occurrences remain a mystery to this day.

During the 1930s, other German families arrived in Santa Cruz to work with the Norwegian colony and lived, initially, by farming and fishing. However, San Cristóbal was more attractive to colonists because of its relatively easy access to water. This was the most populous island until the 1960s and, as a result, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the administrative capital of the archipelago.

It is not surprising that, as has been the case with many other isolated islands, Galapagos was home to penal colonies. In 1832, Coronel Ignacio Henandez recommended the use of the islands as a special prison, and during the 19th century, penal colonies were established on Floreana and San Cristóbal. In 1944, the Ecuadorian government established a third colony on Isabela, with 94 criminals arriving in 1946. In 1958 there was a rebellion leading to the closure of the prison—the “Wall of Tears” in Puerto Villamil remains as a testament to the cruelty of the prison. Ecuadorian authorities closed the Isabela penal colony in 1959, 127 years after the government sent the first political prisoners to Floreana.

The Collectors

Towards the end of the 19th century, collecting Galapagos specimens had become a driving force for visitors. Simeon Habel stayed six months in the Galapagos Islands in 1868, collecting birds, reptiles, insects, and mollusks that ended up in Vienna. Harvard zoologist, Louis Agassiz, a strong critic of Darwin’s ideas, visited the islands on board the U.S.S. Hassler in 1872. Günther’s 1874 manuscript on giant tortoises may have triggered additional interest, and, by the late 1880s, Lord Rothschild had supported numerous trips for his collection at Tring in Hertfordshire, England. The geologist and naturalist, Theodore Wolf, visited in 1875 on the Venecia collecting specimens that were accidentally lost. The Italian corvette, Vittor Pisana, visited in 1884-5 and collected plants on Floreana and San Cristóbal. Baur and Adams spent four months collecting specimens in 1891 and the Albatross visited in 1888 and 1891, collecting on various islands for the Smithsonian.

At the turn of the 19th century, the number of expeditions setting out from California began to grow as Rothschild transferred his operations to San Francisco. Prior to this move, the focus of research on the Galapagos Islands had been in the Royal Society, the Zoological Society of London, the British Museum in the UK, and the Smithsonian Institute and Harvard University, both on the east coast of the US. Subsequently, US west coast universities and museums began to play an increasingly important role in Galapagos science.

In 1898, Edmund Heller and Robert Snodgrass, from Stanford University’s Department of Zoology, visited on board one of the last sealer schooners and brought back collections. In 1901, Rollo Beck visited on the Mary Sachs and brought back live and dead giant tortoise specimens for Lord Rothschild’s collections. Beck returned in 1905, leading the California

Academy of Sciences expedition on board the schooner Academy that stayed for more than a year in the islands, collecting specimens. This collection is, by far, the largest ever taken from the islands—76,000 specimens—and includes all but one of the giant tortoise species inhabiting the islands. The volume and extent of the collection is astonishing, but the point of view of the day was that these collections were the only way to ensure posterity for Galapagos Species. At the turn of the century, scientists had already noted the consequences of whalers, tortoise oil hunters, and invasive species.

Naturalists with the support of wealthy philanthropists then began visiting Galapagos. In 1924, the Monsunen and the St. George visited to collect terrestrial and marine fauna. William Beebe visited twice—on the 1923 Harrison-Williams Expedition on the Noma and in 1925 on the Arcturus Oceanographic Expedition. Allan Hancock visited in 1928 on the Oaxaca and then several times aboard the Velero III from 1931-1938. Gifford Pinchot visited in 1929, as did the Cornelius Crane Pacific Expedition of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. In 1930, the Vincent Astor Expedition on the Nourmahal explored Santa Cruz Island. William K. Vanderbilt visited on the Ara in 1928 and then again on the Alvain 1931-2. The Templeton Crocker Expedition spent two months in the islands in 1932, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia made two expeditions, in 1936 and 1937, to the islands, with the support of Dennison Crockett on the Chiva and George Vanderbilt on the Cressida.

All of these visits provided fodder for the magazines and radio stations of the United States. Articles featuring the Galapagos Islands regularly appeared in Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, Life, and Harpers. Perhaps the most influential publications of the time were those of William Beebe; his books, Galapagos—Worlds End in 1924, and The Arctus Adventure in 1926, captured the imagination of many would-be colonists, naturalists, and romantic idealists. Galapagos was well on the way to its metamorphosis from “inhospitable inferno” to “scientific treasure house” to a “naturalist’s paradise.”

World War II

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 enhanced the strategic importance of the Galapagos Islands as a potential refueling station for trans-oceanic transport. In 1911, the US suggested a 99-year lease of the islands in return for US$15 million. Later, the US and Ecuador discussed the rental or purchase of San Cristóbal, or of the whole archipelago. With the advent of the Second World War, the strategic significance of Galapagos grew, and, in 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and with concern about Japanese actions in East Asia, the US approached Ecuador with the idea of establishing a US airbase on Baltra Island to protect the Panama Canal. At the end of 1941, US forces arrived from the Panama Canal Zone.

In 1942, the US Sixth Air Force constructed the air base which was to have important long-term consequences for the islands. In 1943, this base was home to 2,474 US officers and men and 750 civilian laborers; as such, this was the largest colonization of the islands to that date. In 1941, the civilian population of the Galapagos Islands was 810 people. The arrival of so many people increased the demand for water, fish, and agricultural products, and threw a lifeline to the people eking out a livelihood on the islands. Base crews constructed a water pipeline from the highlands to Wreck Bay, in San Cristóbal, and used barges to transport water to Baltra Island. The availability of water in Wreck Bay made San Cristóbal more attractive to immigration and meant that people could move down to live in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The greatest legacy was the construction of the first land-based airport in the islands—now modernized to serve as the main entry point for most travelers to the Galapagos Islands. The US closed the air base in 1946; residents dismantled the structures left behind, using the components to build many of the early houses in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Commercial Fisheries

From the late 1920s, tuna fishing became a feature in the waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands, as San Diego-based fishermen shifted their attention to Galapagos, 3,100 miles away, because of restrictions on fishing in Mexican waters and declines in the abundance of Albacore in California waters. Until 1937, as much as 70% of the tuna arriving in California may have come from waters near the Galapagos Islands, with the main species being Yellow-fin, Big Eye, and Skipjack. The Second World War intervened to reduce fishing, but the boats returned after the war and took an estimated 100,000 tons of tuna in 1947 and 1948, including fish from the Galapagos waters. In the 1950s, Galapagos researchers remarked on the effects of tuna fishing, reporting that tuna fishermen used to shoot sea lions because of their negative effect on live bait fishing.

More efficient purse seine ships, linked to corporate canneries in California, began to take over fishing in the 1950s. Also, in 1950 Ecuador pressed a claim for 200-miles of territorial waters. Ecuador began to restrict tuna fishing in its waters, including waters around Galapagos. Nevertheless, Californian and Japanese vessels continued to fish: up to 220 boats fished around the Cocos and Galapagos Islands during the 1960s. In 1963, Ecuador began seizing US fishing vessels within the 200 mile limit and levying fines on the vessels. This conflict continued for more than a decade, during which time the US government reimbursed boat owners for fines and lost revenues in order to avoid recognizing the 200 mile-limit. In the early 1970s, US tuna fishermen began buying Ecuadorian licenses.

Long liners arrived in Galapagos waters in 1961. By 1995, 25 Japanese-registered long liners with association agreements worked in Ecuadorian waters. These ships lay out 30 miles of line with thousands of baited hooks to catch Big Eye, Yellow-fin Tuna, and sharks, along with billfish such as Swordfish, Blue Marlin, Black Marlin, Striped Marlin, and Sailfish. Until 1996, over 30% of the Japanese catch came from Galapagos and about 30% of this, by weight, was Blue and Thresher Sharks. By 2002, the tuna fleets in the eastern Pacific were dominated by Mexican and Ecuadorian flag vessels, followed by those flying Venezuelan, US, Spanish, and Panamanian flags. Major tuna fishing continued until the passage of the Special Law in 1998, which banned commercial fishing from the Galapagos Marine Reserve around the islands.


In the 1930s, leaders from the American Committee for International Wild Life, the Carnegie Institution, the British Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences began to express concern about the future of the islands. This initial concern led the government of Ecuador to adopt Executive Decree 607 in 1934, protecting key species, regulating collections, and controlling visiting yachts. A 1936 US Tariff Act and Customs Order backed this law by mandating confiscation of all Galapagos fauna taken in violation of Ecuadorian law.

Victor Wolfgang von Hagen led an expedition to Galapagos in 1935 to mark the centenary of the Beagle’s visit and erected a bust of Darwin on San Cristobal. One of von Hagen’s objectives was to establish a scientific research station and to mobilize scientists in Ecuador, the US, and Europe to conserve Galapagos. In 1936, through Supreme Decree 31, the Ecuadorian government declared the Galapagos Islands a national reserve and established a national Scientific Commission to design strategies for the conservation of the islands.

In the early 1950s, two vocal proponents of Galapagos conservation—Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Robert Bowman—lobbied the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to examine the situation in the islands. With the support of the IUCN and UNESCO, they returned to the islands in 1957 for a four-month expedition financed, in part, by Life Magazine, the International Council for Bird Preservation, the University of California and the New York Zoological Society. They presented their reports to UNESCO and to the 1958 International Congress of Zoology in London. These reports recommended immediate action to protect endangered species, such as tortoises and iguanas, to deal with invasive species, to regulate tuna fisheries, and to establish a research station. The Congress unanimously supported the proposal.

In the late 1950s, a formidable lineup of scientists and conservationists set to work with the government of Ecuador to turn around the situation in Galapagos. The team included Julian Huxley of UNESCO, Peter Scott of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Victor Van Straelen and Marguerite Caram of IUCN, Dillon Ripley and Jean Delacour of the International Council for Bird Preservation, Harold Coolidge of the IUCN Commission on National Parks, Misael Acosta-Solis of the Central University of Quito, Kai Curry-Lindahl of the Nordic Museum, and Jean Dorst of the Paris Natural History Museum. On June 15, 1959, the Ecuadorian government passed a new law making all of the Galapagos Islands a national park, except for those areas owned by existing colonists. The new law also banned the capture of species, such as iguanas and tortoises, and made the port captains the authority for implementing the new rules.

On July 23, 1959, the group established, under Belgian Law, the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands, with Victor Van Straelen as its first president. In 1960, with support from UNESCO, WWF, the New York Zoological Society, and other organizations, the Foundation began to work in Galapagos through the Charles Darwin Research Station. The first activities of the Station addressed education, invasive species, and endangered species issues identified by the Bowman and Eibl-Eibesfeldt reports. Galapagos resident Miguel Castro became the Station’s first conservation officer, initiating activities to change the ways in which people viewed conservation. In 1961, the Research Station began work on invasive species, removing goats from Plaza Sur Island.

In 1966, an analysis of the Galapagos situation—the Snow and Grimwood Report—recommended that the Government establish a National Park Service and, in 1968, the Government of Ecuador appointed the first two park conservation officers, Juan Black and Jose Villa. In 1969, Ministerial Accord 690A defined the borders of the National Park, leaving about three percent of the land area in the hands of colonists. The same accord legalized the National Park Service as an organization for control of conservation. In 1972, the government appointed the first park superintendent—Jaime Torres—and constructed the first National Park buildings. By 1973, there were 18 staff under a legally-established structure. With support from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the government of Ecuador published the first National Park Master Plan in 1974.